“Record yourself when you practice” is common advice, and good advice. I frequently recommend it to my students, but few of them do it. I think it can seem overwhelming. Recording seems like a big production: getting the material to performance level, using complicated and expensive equipment, playing beginning to end, doing cruelly thorough analysis followed by self-flagellation and sadness.
Here’s a simple, effective, low-stress approach that I use:
- Pick some practice material that needs improvement. It can be at any level, from sightreading to almost-perfect.
- Bring up the voice memo app on your smartphone, or something like Audacity (free) on your computer. (You can use fancier equipment if you want, but you will do this process more often if you make it easy.)
- Start recording. Play as much or as little as you like. (A few minutes’ worth is usually my maximum, unless I’m almost ready to perform.) If you make a mistake or have to stop, recover and continue.
- Listen to the recording. As you do, write down things that you hear, both positive and negative. These could be big or small things, like “wrong note at measure 4,” “tone is dull,” “nice smooth phrases,” etc. You don’t have to catch everything. Just note the things that jump out at you.
- Look over your list and pick no more than three things to work on. (I try to pick the things that I think will lead to the greatest overall improvement in how I sound. But if you’re not sure, just pick some.)
- Practice for a while, focusing on the things you wanted to improve.
- Return to step 3.
The benefits of recording your practicing include:
- A more accurate idea of how you sound at this moment.
- Development of your ears, so that you hear yourself more accurately while you are playing. (Less shock when you hear recordings of yourself.)
- Focused, results-driven practice sessions.
- Increased comfort level with playing under pressure.
- Better awareness of your progress (or a tough but necessary realization that you have plateaued—time to rethink your practice techniques!).
Give it a try!